Monday, July 20, 2009

"The Daytrippers"

Greg Mottola's low-pressure charmer Adventureland hasn't done the business it deserved, but as a major studio release, it at least stands the chance of an afterlife on DVD. Maybe if the gods are kind, somebody will roll the dice on getting Mottola's debut film, The Daytrippers, back into print on home video. When this comedy first started drifting into theaters in 1997, it stood apart from the indie-film pack for its unflashiness and lack of condescension towards its middle-class characters. Seen today, it may inspire a certain nostalgia for its movie era: here are the indie-film all-stars of the late '90s in the full bloom of youth, before they started lining up to take on Wolverine or competing with each other to see whose new TV series could get cancelled quickest. The Daytrippers begins with Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci as an apparently happily married couple living in Long Island. Tucci works at a Manhattan publishing firm, and after he heads off for work with plans not to be back home for a couple of days, Davis finds what seems to be a love letter that was written to him by someone named Sandy. Confused and nervous, Davis invites her family--including her parents (Anne Meara and Pat McNamara), her sister (Parker Posey), and the sister's boyfriend, Carl (Liev Schreiber)-- to talk her into believing that it's nothing. The upshot is that the whole pack winds up venturing into the city to confront Tucci, piled into a broken-down station wagon with a busted heater on a late-November day that isn't getting any warmer.

The suspense is pretty much kept under control. Any questions about whether or not Davis has good reason to distrust her husband were answered as soon as Tucci nabbed the part. Nor is The Daytrippers what we film blogger types or others with working eyeballs would call "visually distinguished." Its pleasures come from watching so many gifted comedians shoved together and left to chew on each other. The cast also includes Campbell Scott (who co-directed Big Night with Tucci, and who would also co-star with Davis in The Secret Lives of Dentists, Duma, and the TV series Six Degrees) as a novelist, the writer-director Douglas McGrath as Tucci's boss, and Marcia Gay Hardin, who tears it up in a cameo as a woman who's come to a holiday party so she can make an elaborate show of not paying attention to her ex-boyfriend while asking strangers to check to see whether he's paying any attention to her.

As Carl, Liev Schreiber delivers a beautifully full portrait of a sweet, well-meaning intellectual pseud who, unless nothing is done to discourage him, is well on his way to becoming a full-blown asshole of fearsome proportions. "Let me tell you something," he says by way of making small talk as the car crawls past the architectural horrors that dot landscape along the L.I.E., "the Europeans may have been imperialists, but they knew how to make a building." Carl, whose need to declare his superiority to the rabble has inspired him to become Long Island's leading proponent of a return to a system of aristocracy, enlivens the road trip by describing the plotline of his novel, "an allegory about spiritual survival in the contemporary world" about a man born with the head of a dog. "What kind of dog?" asks Dad. It doesn't matter, Parker Posey says, but Carl jumps in happily to stress that it's actually a very important detail. It's a German short-haired pointer.

Good as the men are, The Daytrippers really belongs to its women. Hope Davis, not for the last time, demonstrates a special gift for seeming too depressed to think while simultaneously being funny and likable and even seeming rather lively. (Just standing still, she'd have been thrown out of an Antonioni movie for disturbing the peace.) She keeps you guessing about just how much emotional life there might be behind those heavy lids until the climactic moment when she catches sight of her husband across a crowded room, acting suavely goofy, and her face breaks out into a wide grin that life is about to take a sledgehammer to. Posey does a reverse spin on the same act, acting vivacious and flirty in a way that seems to hint that her character is a total bitch waiting for the moment to attack, only to reveal the defensive little girl (and supportive sister) hidden inside the attitude and layers of make-up and clothing. (With her lips a crimson slash and blue raccoon eyes, and wearing a green scarf and red thigh-highs with a heavy winter jacket, she's the most colorful thing to be seen on this fall day, and when she makes a run for it, she looks like a yard sale in motion.) And the eternally underused Anne Meara probably has the best movie role of her life; she's the essence of every parent whose zealousness to pound their children's lives into the shape they think they should be has turned them into a gorgon. She's Livia Soprano with a human face.

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